Thursday 3 November 2011

Please Stand By, Pt. 2 - An Inventory of Effects


Here we have the American artist Chris Burden, looking like a professional and presenting himself to the world. The above photos come from his 1971 performance art piece I Became a Secret Hippy. It was one of Burden's earliest works, executed about the time he was completing his graduate studies at the University of California, Irvine. For the piece, Burden stripped naked and laid down on the floor while a friend hammered a star-shaped stud into his chest. He then sat in a chair while another friend shaved his head with electric shears. Burden then donned the suit of an FBI agent and presented himself to the event's few attendees.

The real-world incidents that inspired I Became a Secret Hippy are so obvious that they don't warrant an explanation. In that respect, it was far from being a subtle work. But considering that it was done at the time that Burden was leaving the cloistered confines of academia and making his transition into the world of professional artmaking, no doubt its ritualistic, rite-of-passage mimicry held some ironic personal meaning for the artist.

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By many accounts, the early Seventies were considered turbulent years -- a time of political, social, and economic upheaval. Most Americans had entered the 1960s with an optimistic vision of the future that awaited them. But a decade later, it all looked uncertain and many people were getting anxious and doubtful, not daring to guess what might happen next. A common, knee-jerk opinion on the street had it that the world was going to hell. "Shootin' rockets to the moon / Kids growing up too soon… Ball of confusion!"

Soldiers returning home after numerous tours of Vietnam reputedly experienced something akin to culture shock, finding things at home much different from when they'd departed. The rapid pace of technological change, and the societal shifts that resulted, had some in the pop-sociology realm talking of "future shock."

So when people read that somewhere a young man had someone shoot him with a rifle and then called the whole thing art, a number of people were shocked, but probably not all that surprised. This is what passes for art these days. The way things were heading, why not?

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The incident in question -- the one that would become Burden's notorious "greatest hit" -- was Shoot, which followed I Became a Secret Hippy by a mere three weeks. On the evening of November 19, 1971, Burden and a few associates and a small number of attendees met in a low-rent art space in Santa Ana. It was, by most accounts, a pretty modest and casual affair, up to the point when -- at an "Okay, let's do this" moment in the evening -- Burden positioned himself against one of the gallery walls. A friend then raised a .22-calibre rifle, took aim at Burden, and fired a single shot.

The plan was a have a handful of spectators witness a William Tell-styled act of trust, with the designated shooter aiming at the wall just to the left of Burden's shoulder. At the most, Burden later claimed, the rifle slug was only supposed to graze him. But due to poor marksmanship the bullet instead hit Burden in the bicep of his left arm. Not having anticipating such an outcome, no one had thought to bring a first-aid kit, so a bandage had to be improvised.

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Before we go any further, a brief overview might be in order...

Selected Works, 1971 - 1976

Chris crams himself into a small metal locker for five days.
Chris gets shot.
Chris lies in a bed for 22 days.
Chris lies down under a tarp in traffic along a busy boulevard.
Chris nearly immolates himself.
Chris dangles naked tied by a rope around his ankles.
Chris crawls over broken glass.
Chris pushes live electrical wires into his bare chest.
Chris has people use him as a human pin cushion.
Chris runs the risk of immolating himself again.
Chris gets crucified to a Volkswagen.
Chris nearly drowns himself.
Chris gets kicked down two flights of stairs.
Chris nearly sets himself on fire. (Yes, again.)
Chris lies on a shelf, just out of sight, for 22 days.
Chris lies, unmoving, under a sheet of glass for 45 hours straight.
Chris bicycles through Death Valley.

Chris does a bunch of other things during these years, but it's the more violent and alarming and supposedly masochistic things he does that everyone talks about. Thereby making him a bit infamous in the process, saddling him a reputation as the "Evel Knievel of the art world" that he grew to resent.

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Chris Burden didn't consider himself a "performance artist," nor did he ever aspire to be one. He'd originally set out to be a sculptor. In the latter years of his studies, he became preoccupied with the task of creating interactive sculptures -- works that invited the audience to become a part of the piece, that were meant to be engaged and manipulated by the viewer. But he quickly became frustrated and deemed many of his works to be unsuccessful, because each time the audience balked at the invitation, choosing instead to maintain the role of distant and passive spectators.

To remedy this impasse, Burden decided to physically make himself a part of the "sculpture," if not the primary component of the work itself. He did this for his senior thesis project, which involved cramming himself into a 2' x 2' x 3' steel locker for the duration of five days. As word of the Burden's project circulated around campus, the curiosity factor brought a steady flow of visitors. People sat outside the locker, inquiring into his well-being and asking him why he was doing what he was doing. A few people sat for extended periods and -- perhaps confused by the dynamic -- treated him like a Father Confessor and divulged all sorts of personal details about themselves. During the final day of the piece, university administration were debating whether to have the locker cut open, fearing for their own liability in connection with Burden's project.

So, problem solved. But noted for future reference: How to calculate for the vagaries of interpersonal psychology? 1

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Performance art was, of course, something of a big deal in the artworld of the 1970s, and Chris Burden was regarded as one of its leading and most controversial pioneers. But performance art wasn't such an entirely new thing. It'd first been kicked around by the Futurists and the Dadaists in the early part of the century, then gone dormant for many years before being reanimated in the 1950s and 1960s, primarily by way of the "happenings" staged by John Cage and his disciples in the Fluxus movement.

If there was any recent historical precedence for the type of work Chris Burden was executing in the early '70s, it was probably Yoko Ono's 1962 Cut Piece, which involved the artist sitting silently on a stage and inviting the audience to cut of here clothing piece by piece with a pair of communal scissors. On the three occasions that Ono staged Cut Piece during the mid-1960s, the audience obliged her each time, in the end leaving the artist sitting on stage wearing little more than scraps and tatters.

Cut Piece is an often-cited work in its own right. Critics often speak of how the piece addresses gender dynamics and how these dynamics play out in terms of social power and status. But in a broader context, one could argue that it ultimately points to an interrogation of the codes of conduct in a supposedly polite society, one which eventually (or hopefully) leads to a critique of the nature of socialization itself. 2

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On the morning of January 5, 1973, Chris Burden walked out onto a beach near the runways of LAX and fired several shots from a revolver at a 747 as it flew overheard. Burden later explained that the piece was about "impotence," since he knew in advance that the bullets would fall short of their target. Impotence in this case meaning bold but futile gestures, the inadequacy of human agency in the face of the grander scheme of things.

Still, unsurprising to learn that the FBI showed up on his doorstep with some questions about the incident a few days afterwards.

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Apparently it's not an easy task getting Chris Burden to talk about his early work. He was never the most "verbal" of people in the first place. Plus, for some years now, he only allows interviews on a conditional basis -- that condition being that only a select few interviewers are allowed to ask him about him about his early career. There are lots of valid reasons for having that kind of policy. The first being that it's got to be tedious always being asked about the same things over and over again. Another being that all of that work was done decades ago, and the artist had long ago moved on to other things.

Yeah, pieces like Shootmade him famous and much of it remains controversial to this day. But that sort of thing has its downside. Such as having Genesis P-Orridge, some years later, bragging in an interview about a COUM performance piece in which he and Cosey Fanni Tutti supposedly cut each other with razors and rolled around in all variety of each other's bodily fluids, boasting that the piece's main claim to success was that it made it made Chris Burden walk out in exasperation and disgust. Or maybe, over the course of many years, having heard about countless art students doing visceral, "shocking," yet ultimately empty performance projects for their graduate theses, each time claiming Burden as a source of inspiration.

It's a lot to have to disassociate oneself from. It also demonstrates how the whole "anxiety of influence" thing can run two ways.

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For 1973's Through the Night Softly, Burden sprinkled broken glass across a fifty-foot expanse of a parking lot located alongside a main drag in downtown Los Angeles. He then stripped down to his skivvies, clasped his hands behind his back, and proceeded to crawl across the glass-strewn pavement on his belly, gradually inching his way forward by rolling and rocking from side to side. The only audience for the occasion was whatever passersby happened to be strolling the avenue that evening. Burden had an associate film the action with a 16mm camera.

Shortly after staging Through the Night Softly, Burden bought 10-second blocks of advert time on a local station in Los Angeles. In these slots, over the course of several weeks, he ran a brief excerpt from the filmed documentation of the piece. There, going out over the airwaves somewhere during the late night or early morning hours, up popped a brief title-card intro identifying the piece, followed by a clip of Burden worming his way over a bed of broken glass. One can only imagine the confusion of the late-night viewer, seeing such a sight between ads for dandruff shampoo and a K-Tel mail-order collection of "THE BIGGEST HITS BY TODAY'S TOP ARTISTS!" Somewhere amid the signal-to-noise equation of television's symbiosis of entertainment and commerce, Burden had inserted an incongruous and incomprehensible factor.3

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Burden would later say that he ran his TV ads because he "always wanted to be on television." Which is perfectly understandable when you consider that the 1970s marked the point that the first American generation to be raised on TV -- the generation for whom television was an integral part of their experience -- reached adulthood and became the mainstream of society.

This also explains why Marshall McLuhan was still an intellectual hot topic at the time. McLuhan, of course, had been the obscure Canadian academic who dared to point out that television was more than some magic box that offered pleasant distractions interspersed with the occasional bursts of information. Instead, he'd delved into analysis of TV's role in the expanding realm of electronic mass media, arguing that television was part of the long evolution of human communications. Far from being just some mod-con appliance, television's role as a mass-consumed medium meant that it was reshaping society -- radically altering people's perceptions of the world and their place in it.

Admittedly, these days it's not that difficult to look back on many of McLuhan's theories and shrug them off, or -- as many have done -- prove them wrong in the light of recent psychological or sociological studies. But McLuhan was a bit like Sigmund Freud is a number of ways. Yes, like Freud he can easily be proven wrong or mistaken on a number of counts. But like Freud, he was the first to venture into territory that many once thought dodgy or esoteric. And also like Freud, he came up with a number of theories in the course of his analysis that -- even after the theories themselves have been dismantled or dismissed -- still provide a rich and useful set of conceptual metaphors.

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Poem for L.A., TV Ad, 1975


One of the things that McLuhan had pointed out was that the world as people knew it was effectively shrinking. Recent technological developments in mass communications and high-speed travel were bringing about a state of temporal-spatial compression -- collapsing the world's separate cultures and far-flung places into the domain of what he termed the "global village."

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TV Hijack, 1972


Television casts a legitimizing gaze, so all TV is more or less "reality TV" in the end. Marshall McLuhan and Daniel Boorstin were among those who recognized this fact early in the game. Richard Nixon learned this the hard way in 1960, as did those in the Pentagon as Vietnam became "the television war" later in the decade. The same applies for the handful of Yippies who sought to hack the TV airwaves, as well as the proponents of "guerilla TV" who argued that public-access cable was a grass-roots alternative to corporate monopolizing of the broadcast spectrum. Likewise for Pat Robertson and a number of other televangelists who jockeyed to acquire airtime throughout the 1960s. Additionally for the more savvy of the era's aspiring terrorists like the Symbionese Liberation Army, who kidnapped-heiress-turned-accomplice Patty Hearst described as "media freaks" during her 1976 trail. And also Christine Chubbuck, the lonely and despondent news anchor who -- during a morning broadcast on a station in Florida in 1974 -- committed suicide by blowing her brains out on live TV.

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"...If I had invited NBC to Shoot, I would have had no control. [Which] reminds me of this T.V. program from which a producer called me up and said: 'Chris, we will do anything for you blah, blah, blah!' I said to them: 'OK, I want 30 seconds of your advertising time.' And they replied: 'No! Impossible!' It was absurd. They conceived of me as Alice Cooper -- a big spectacle."
– Chris Burden, 1999 interview

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In the Global Village, information travels faster and further. The same goes for images, be they from the streets of Saigon or the battlefronts of Biafra. With this newfound connectedness, the problems and conflicts of the world suddenly seem less remote and have more far-reaching affects.

Take terrorism, for example. Up to the late 1960s, Americans had very little concept of, let alone experience with, terrorism. Previously, terrorism was something that happened elsewhere -- the IRA, ETA, the bombings of the Parisian "café wars" being carried out between rival Algerian rebel factions, etc. As far as Americans had been concerned, it all had something-or-other to do with geopolitical struggles and the shrinking of former colonial empires; all very Old World and Third World, not something they had to worry about or bother to understand.

But that began to change in 1968 when the American commercial travel industry was hit by a sudden upsurge of airline skyjackings. Over the five years that followed, airline hijackings were an almost daily (sometimes twice-daily) occurrence. Flights rerouted to Havana or elsewhere. Televised news reports featuring masked gunman, headcounts of the hostages taken, the chronicling of demands and negotiations, the dispatching of tactical units and snipers. Up to the point that the Federal Aviation Administration belatedly installed new airport security measures in 1973, the spectacle of airline hijackings would be an integral facet of modern American life.

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Nearly twenty years later, art and terrorism would surface as thematic tropes in Don Delillo's 1991 novel Mao II. At one point in the novel, the character Bill Grey contemplates his place as writer amidst the political and historic turbulence of the contemporary world:

"For some time now I've had the feeling that novelists and terrorists are playing a zero-sum game." 

"Interesting. How so?"
"What terrorists gain, novelists lose. The degree to which they influence mass consciousness is the extent of our decline as shapers of sensibility and thought. The danger they represent equals our own failure to be dangerous."
"And the more clearly we see terror, the less impact we feel from art."
"I think the relationship is intimate and precise insofar as such things can be measured."

Interviewed shortly after the novel's publication, Delillo elaborated:

"...In a society that's filled with glut and repetition and endless consumption, the act of terror may be the only meaningful act. People who are in power make their arrangements in secret, largely as a way of maintaining and furthering that power. People who are powerless make an open theater of violence. True terror is a language and a vision. There is a deep narrative structure to terrorist acts, and they infiltrate and alter consciousness in ways that writers used to aspire to."

It's been said (though I forget by whom) that every work of art is ultimately a glorified failure, is in some way or another testament to the author or artist's efforts to reach an envisioned goal. Perhaps this is partly what Joseph Conrad had in mind when he said that writing in English was akin to flinging mud at a wall. Or one aspect of what Chris Burden meant when he said that 747 was about impotence.

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Bed Piece, 1972


When Burden was about twelve years old, the story goes, his parents separated and his mother took Chris and his brother away to the island of Elba. At some point in their residence on the island, Chris's foot was crushed in an accident. The accident left him bedridden for roughly nine months during his recovery, isolated from the rest of his family, and frequently surrounded by caregivers who spoke a language he didn't understand. He later claimed this was a deeply significant experience of his formative years.

Admittedly, trying to interpret an artist's work in correspondence with their personal life is always dicey business. But one has to wonder about certain pieces in Burden's early career -- particularly those works that involve the artist lying immobile for long spans of time. Crammed into a locker, lying bolted to the floor between buckets of water and a pair of live wires, lying in an alcove with a written invitation for attendees to use him as a human pin cushion, lying on a shelf just out of view of visitors in a gallery for a full month, lying immobile under a sheet of glass for nearly two day.

Burden would later say that the childhood experience of being stuck in a bed for those many weeks and the pain he experienced at the time were what he frequently drew from for his "durational" pieces -- what helped him put himself into a "mind over matter" state when a piece required it. Meaning that in choosing to execute such a work, he was returning to that point in his childhood -- repeatedly revisiting that initial state of trauma, by volition. This undoubtedly plays heavily into the accusations of "masochism" that some critics leveled at Burden's early work.

Still, at this particular moment in American cultural history when many felt like things were going off the rails and crashing, the condition of trauma was a fairly apt metaphor. Plus, psychiatry was very chic at the time; so lot of people were spending time laying around on couches, continually revisiting the shocks and psychic wounds from their earlier years.

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The early works of Chris Burden have often summoned comparisons to the stories of Franz Kafka. Most obvious is how the artist's public feats of endurance, deprivation, and endangerment bring to mind Kafka's "The Hunger Artist." Then there are the pieces that suggest torture and self-mutilation, which might be discussed in relation to the punishment sequence from Kafka's "In the Penal Colony," as filtered through a Foucaultian discussion of the "micro-politics of power" whereby the inscribed-on-the body punishment becomes a corporeal metaphor about the human body as "site" or locus for the internalization of socially repressive and coercive processes. Or something to that effect.

But there's another element of Kafka that turns up in the work as well -- the element of absurdity. The absurdity of The Trail, and of its introductory parable "Before the Law." Case in point: Burden's Doomed, which took place Chicago's Museum of Contemporary Art in April of 1975. Burden's matter-of-fact description of the piece ran thusly:

My performance consisted of three elements: myself, an institutional wall clock, and a 5' x 8' sheet of plate glass. The sheet of glass was placed horizontally and leaned against the wall at a 45 degree angle; the clock was placed to the left of the glass at eye level. When the performance began, the clock was running at the correct time. I entered the room and reset the clock to twelve midnight. I crawled into the space between the glass and the wall, and lay on my back. I was prepared to lie in that position indefinitely, until one of the three elements was disturbed or altered. The responsibility for ending the piece rested with the museum staff, but they were unaware of this crucial aspect. The piece ended when [a museum employee] placed a container of water inside the space between the wall and the glass, 45 hours and 10 minutes after the start of the piece. I immediately got up and smashed the face of the clock with a hammer, recording the exact amount of time which had elapsed from beginning to end.

By "unaware of this crucial aspect," what Burden meant was that he had delineated the guidelines for the piece in a set of instructions, instructions that he had sealed in an envelope but didn't share with museum staff until the work's completion. The museum staffers had the ability to intervene and end the piece at any point, but were kept unaware of the fact.

And as it turned out, Burden hadn't thought that it would take them so long to act. At most, he expected Doomed would wind up last a few hours. In an interview given some years later, Burden said that as the hours ticked by and the work began to stretch towards its third day, he realized his miscalculation and began to wonder if the attendees were going to continue to stand back and leave him to die.

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One critical reading of some of Chris Burden's early work -- especially a work like Doomed -- was that it all, on some level, had to do with American involvement in Vietnam. With the violence and futility of that involvement, of the culture of public protest than sprang up around it, and of the waning of the anti-war movement in the early 1970s. Burden's theater of self-directed cruelty, the argument went, put the viewer in a moral double bind, making them complicit in an atrocity exhibition. In that respect, Burden's work had less in common with "happenings" and performance art, and more in common with the politicized activities of the Living Theater and other such "guerilla theater" troupes of the 1960s.

Or so one theory had it. There are critics who've argued to the contrary, claiming that Burden's work has no socio-political subtext. Burden himself hasn't helped matters, choosing to only discuss the small and basic ideas behind his works, rarely acknowledging any type of Broader Social Context.4

And yet, too many of his works seem to thematically parallel the culture of the time. So which is it?

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Small wonder that after Doomed, Burden didn't feel like doing any more similar "durational" pieces where he bodily put himself at the mercy of his audience. Instead of his expected stuntwork, in the years that followed Burden did a number of more conceptual and metaphorical works that addressed the institutional workings of the artworld itself -- critiquing the economics of the art market, the nature of the value bestowed on artworks themselves, and the like.

It's no small coincidence that Burden started doing these works at the time that was starting to become famous for the work he'd been doing in the first half of the decade; becoming recognized as a Significant Artist of the Era, with museums and top-tier galleries now bidding to commission his next work. For one of the works, Burden recorded and then made public his backroom negotiations between his gallery reps, in another he oversaw the counterfeiting of money. At one point in the 1980s, he demanded a commission to cover a million dollars' worth of gold bars, which he then exhibited stacked as a pyramid, which in turn required the gallery to double security and insure the show for an unprecedented sum.

So Burden wasn't taking a bullet or setting himself on fire for art, anymore. But in some ways these new pieces are just as perversely self-effacing, if not self-destructive, in that it's almost as if the artist were trying to make certain art institutions regret their decision of seeking his services in the first place.

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By the end of the 1970s, Burden was gravitating towards making another form of sculpture -- primarily installational works. A fair number of these artworks had to do with the subject of war, specifically with the American military-industrial complex of the latter Cold War years. Most notably, there was 1979's The Reason for the Neutron Bomb. It was inspired by a bit of anti-Soviet propaganda that had widely circulating, a claim that the Soviets had a force of 50,000 tanks enforcing its border in Eastern European buffer zone (reputedly more than twice that of U.S., European, and NATO forces combined). The number seemed incomprehensible -- if not dubious -- to Burden, so he decided to try and reproduce this "tank gap" on a micro- scale. At first he thought of hiring a toy company to cast a set of 50,000 miniature tanks for the piece; but finding the cost far too prohibitive, he instead settled for the roughest of facsimiles by using matchsticks and coins.

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As with most artists, there are a number of themes than run throughout the full array of Chris Burden's work. One of these themes evolved out of Burden's fascination with the fundamental laws of physics -- an area of interest he'd harbored since childhood. Perhaps his most famous work of this sort was 1979's The Big Wheel. The piece consists of a motorcycle with it rear tire propped up to engage a 3-ton cast-iron flywheel. A couple of times each day, the artist or some museum staffer comes in to start the bike, gradually revving it into full throttle over the course of two minutes or so, thus setting the larger wheel rotating. The roar of the cycle's engine nearly deafens in the enclosed space; followed by the spinning of the flywheel, which practically whispers as it takes several hours to slow to a stopping point.

Coincidentally, 1979 was also the year that the CIA devised a plan to provoke the Soviets into invading Afghanistan by covertly providing funds and training to anti-governmental forces in the Afghan Mujahideen. On learning of the operation, National Security Advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski was enthused and told President Jimmy Carter that the plan -- if successful – would present "the opportunity of giving to the USSR its Vietnam war." The strategy was quickly put into place, and met with the desired result. Once set into motion, some things take their own momentum, and their own time to wind down.

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1.  Burden wasn't the first or only artist to execute such work at the time. His was generally filed under the emergent subcategory of "body art," a trend that some critics regarded as a largely West Coast Thing. As with Burden's own "human sculpture" rationale, "body art" was intended as an artistic strategy for short-circuiting (or at least by-passing) the rigidly formalistic and subject-object relationships that were so endemic in Minimalism's reductivism and "aesthetics of presence."

2.  Admittedly, the standard feminist reading of Cut Piece is a bit slippery in some respects. In terms of the relation between performer and audience, one could argue that Yoko Ono not only presented herself to the audience as a woman, she also presented herself as the artist Yoko Ono. It could also be pointed out that the gender-specific reading of the work is largely circumstantial, since Ono later stipulated that re-enactments of the performance could be stages with either a male or female sitter (and even pat one point proposed a version of the piece where audience members performed the action on each other).

With a piece like Shoot, Burden extended an invitation to his audience as well -- that invitation often being little more than to be at a certain place at a certain time. Beyond that, one could argue that he then took the theatrical dynamic in an opposite direction from that of Ono's, in that the piece suggested the ways in which the audience's inactivity constituted an (chosen, accepted) activity in itself.

3.  It might not need pointing out that at the time, restrictions on violent content for network television were extensive. Anything of the graphic quality of Burden's film would've normally only been reserved for the national evening news, and even then only sparingly.

4.  Exceptions have been rare. Burden did admit, many years after the fact, that the events at Kent State had given him the initial that would lead to Shoot.


Lutz Eitel said...

This is a wonderful post. I have to admit I still thought he had himself shot in the arm on purpose, that seemed to be the point: see the iconic photo where he looks shocked despite himself (and way more sexy/less chubby than in other shots (ha)).

I share your distrust of the usual readings. Often performances are read like a tableau with its own fixed iconography. But there’s always a layer of pure craft in the doing that often gets ignored. A durational piece from Marina Abramovic e.g. can feel like great sportsmanship. What made Chris run? Somehow I’m getting a sense of warped professionalism in the Hunter Thompson mode (where you pop pills (or make your wife get a tattoo) because the job demands it). A quick google turns up this motivation from him: “I didn’t have any money. I really wanted to keep making art.” (In a not very good article which at least knows that “these days Burden shows no ill effects from those earlier physical trials.” (Which means as a body artist he’s not in the same league as Evil Knievel.)

Greyhoos said...

Yeah, not much like Evel Knievel in the end. If anything, seems like just as often the main injury he was facing from all that lying around) was atrophied muscles or stiff tendons. And having to do a lot of physical therapy afterward.